It’s not all about basket-weaving and pottery. These talented young artists are combining traditional skills with cutting-edge scientific methods
Interactive wallpaper, reconditioned bus seats and textiles mixed with concrete. It sounds like an unlikely portfolio of Irish crafts — at least to the uninitiated, who still associate the term with cabinet-making and traditional basket-weaving. But Embracing Technology, the latest exhibition from the Crafts Council of Ireland, which coincides with the Kilkenny arts festival, is all about the unusual and the unexpected.
“I think, for want of a better word, it makes craft sexy. I want to provoke a reaction with this exhibition,” says Angela O’Kelly, the exhibition’s curator.
Blowing the cobwebs and sawdust off the image of craft is no easy task in a country where purist techniques, deep-rooted traditions and good old-fashioned elbow grease are treasured, while anything that smacks of mass production is exiled to the realms of “design” — a lonely place for an Irish maker with no access to a supportive industry.
“There will, of course, be some people who hate this, maybe because in Ireland, we’re just at the start of this sort of thing. Our crafts processes, and even our crafts training here, haven’t focused on technologies the way they have done in the UK,” says O’Kelly.
In Embracing Technology, 14 makers have been selected, a handful of whom are directly involved in making products for the home, such as sun canopies, magnetic wallpaper, wall stickers, “upcycled” seating and new textiles created using industrial technology. This isn’t craft moving away from its roots, however. It is an evolution, involving mainly young (and female) makers who are taking craft forward, but bringing technology along for the ride. Each maker is as comfortable in a traditional studio as they are in a lab or in front of a piece of digital software.
“The idea was to show the process of craft as it incorporates new, exciting technologies and heads in new directions. I wanted to show how makers can push the boundaries of their craft and to see how we can blend new technology with the slow process of hand-crafts,” says O’Kelly.
The work of Jo Angell is a case in point. Influenced by nature, she combines hand-crafting with new technologies. Angell’s products are sun canopies, which are inspired by diatoms — single-celled structures encased in two-sided silica that are beautifully ornate when viewed through a microscope. Angell then laser-cuts the patterns, creating a light-diffusing effect on a perfectly functional product.
Rachel Kelly, who was nominated for a 2010 Grand Designs award for her work for Habitat, produces wall coverings, ranging from laser- and cad-cut (computer-aided design-cut) decorative stickers to hand-screen-printed paper. Kelly is the definition of the craft meets technology hybrid: she combines handmade silkscreens with cad, digital and laser technology. Her wall stickers, which happen to tap into a hot trend, resemble adhesive vinyl doilies that can be placed on any smooth surface.
Tactility Factory, meanwhile, is the brainchild of Ruth Morrow, an architect, and Trish Belford, a textile designer. The company’s slogan, “Making hard surfaces soft”, hints at its output: beautiful, tactile surfaces for use in the home or in public spaces. Each surface has a hand-crafted, antique feel and has been created using cutting-edge technologies developed at the University of Ulster, which the pair have patented.
Aoife Ludlow — who holds a degree in textiles from the National College of Art and Design and a masters in interactive media from the University of Limerick — combines laser-cutting, digital print, animation and film with traditional textile techniques. A designer for Tactility Factory and a co-director of the design consultancy We Like Soup, she is based in Belfast.
Another textile designer in the exhibition, Jenny Leary, investigates the use of magnetic materials such as steel fibres, ferrite rubber, magnetic films, neodymium magnets and ultrafine iron powder. She blends these ingredients with traditional textile materials and, using embroidery and laser-cutting, reinvents textiles as we know them.
CJ O’Neill is a skip diver with a difference — she reinterprets second-hand objects using industrial production processes, but still considers herself a craftsperson and is fascinated by the balance between the handmade and the industrial. Her “upcycled” plates are decorative, witty and unusual — a traditional willow-pattern plate, for example, is punctured with a typographical message or embellished in a colourful, interesting way.
Jill Phillips makes bespoke furniture, textiles and interiors, mixing antique with modern. Her latest project involved re-upholstering former bus seats in her own textiles: few of us ever expect to see a bus seat upholstered in anything other than scratchy, tasteless flame-retardant material.
Not only has Phillips embraced new technologies in her products, but she has also waded into the issue of sustainability in design — an area all Irish makers, be they craftspeople, technophiles or industrial designers, will need to think about.